Over the years the state crackdown on women’s dress has become more of a show to placate the country’s hardline base. Our correspondent shares stories from her personal repertoire illustrating the поинт
As summer approaches, police in Tehran have once again begun to crack down on Iranians who fail to comply with the country’s Islamic dress code. This year, besides the customary uniformed morality police, 7,000 undercover agents are reportedly also on the case. I was spared the early years of the Islamic Republic, but my mother recalls how diligent she had to be to avoid giving the morality police – or anyone else with the authority to judge appearances – any pretext to find fault with her, as jail sentences for “protesting” were all too common for dress-code transgressors.
It was a hot day in the early 1980s and my parents were going to an international exhibition in Tehran. As my older sister, then a baby, lay in her carriage, my mom wheeled her into the room filled with female agents who were in charge of checking the women’s compliance. They would ask some to fix their hijab, passing tissues to others to wipe off their makeup. As one agent finished scrutinizing my mother, she looked at my sister in the carriage.
“Khanoum!” – “lady” – she exclaimed. “Why are your daughter’s bare legs showing?” she asked, in apparent shock.
“She’s just eight months old,” my mother, in even greater shock, replied.
“So what? She’s a girl, isn’t she?”
My mom covered my sister’s legs with a blanket. Back then, nobody would argue further. People were scared.
Iranian fashion: between the veils
As time went by, the younger generation gradually became accustomed to the morality police, then known as komiteh. Just one encounter with them, and the spell of dread was broken. You were not scared of them any more. At least those in my circle were not.
During the early 1990s, the komiteh arrested my sister and her friend on the street. They were on their way to buy ice cream when a van pulled up beside them. A woman in black chador opened the van door and asked them to enter. Frightened, my sister and her friend ran toward an idling taxi a few meters away and jumped in. The van shot forward and veered in front of the taxi. Two soldiers leaped out and pointed their guns at the car while the woman in chador shouted at the top of her lungs for my sister and her friend to get in the van. They did.
Accompanied by other women, mostly young, who had similarly been arrested, they were driven to Vozara Detention Center where a group trial date was scheduled. A few hours later, my parents took my sister home. My mother was stunned, my father confused. My sister, who was then in middle school, had a very different take. She entered our house with a wide smile on her face, telling me it was the “coolest experience”. She excitedly described how all the women were singing and clapping as they waited together in a communal cell. A few of their fellow scofflaws, apparently regulars at that particular detention center, were handcuffed. As my sister and her van companions entered the cell, one of them held her hands up in the air and shouted, “Hey kids! Check this out! They have given me bracelets!”
A few days later, the girls in the van showed up for their group trial and were fined 5,000 tomans each – the equivalent then of less than 20 dollars.
In the early 2000s, my dad was driving my sister back from a class when, a few blocks from home, they were stopped by the morality police.
“What’s the relation between you two?” a male agent asked my father.
“She’s my daughter,” he calmly replied.
“Why are you in the car with this man? Who is he?” a female agent asked my sister.
“He’s my dad,” she calmly replied.
The agents asked for documents that could prove these incredible claims. My father and sister didn’t have any. The agents talked between themselves for few minutes and let them go. By this point, no one took such encounters to heart. Hearing the story, my mom responded with an incredulous “What?” I just laughed.
This was during the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami, when many of us young people felt emboldened to publicly bend the morality rules and even, yes, protest. One night around that time, four of us were tooling down the Modarres Highway when a police car signaled for us to pull over. My sister’s boyfriend was behind the wheel, while she rode shotgun. I was in the rear alongside my boyfriend, who’d been smoking out the window.
One policeman exited the car and walked toward us.
“What’s the problem, officer?” my sister’s boyfriend asked.
“This lady was sitting improperly,” he said, pointing at me. I was resting my knees on the back of the front seat.
I’m certain that none of us were scared. My sister even chuckled quietly. I got angry and started shouting and crying. I felt insulted. It was the policeman, if anyone, who seemed less than sure of himself. He apologized, asked us to sit “properly”, and invited us to go.
No, it was not always that easy. There were times we sensed that arguing would make things worse.
Iran's morality police: patrolling the streets by stealth
One evening during the mid-2000s, we were on our way back from a day trip to the Alborz Mountains near Firouzkuh, northeast of Tehran. There were nine of us, girls and boys, filling up two cars. As we drove down the dusty road of a small village, a man on a motorbike pulled up alongside the lead car and requested we stop. We did. The biker parked directly in front of us so as to thwart any potential escape. He displayed his militia card and said he wouldn’t let us go.
“But why?” one friend asked.
“Because you think you can do all the filthy things you want in the mountains and run away,” he replied.
In fact, it had been a fairly innocent hike. Sure, some of us had been smoking. Yes, maybe we held hands and hugged as we posed for the camera. That’s all.
As we argued with the militia member, men and boys from the village surrounded the car. Some were holding shovels. This time, we were a bit scared.
Then the militia guy, who was in his twenties, delivered the strangest soliloquy I have ever heard in my life, more surreal than anything else I’ve experienced, even on stage, from Beckett on down.
“You Tehranis think you are so cool? No, you are not. You think we villagers don’t understand anything, but we do. Do you think only you know things? Do you think only you read books? I also know who Sigmund Freud is. I read his books. I know what the Oedipus complex is. Do you know what the Oedipus complex is?”
That was just the beginning. After what seemed like an hour of breathless lecturing on matters Freudian and Sophoclean, he did at long last let us go. During the rest of the trip we tried ever so hard to interpret what he was trying to communicate. We didn’t get very far.
When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in 2005, the shift toward conservatism was palpable. It was August, height of morality police season. Their numbers seemed to multiply virtually overnight, and they would pick on anybody.
Another trip to the Alborz, a couple years into the Ahmadinejad era. Not so far this time, and we were walking back. It was already dark. I was exhausted, having hiked to the peak of Mount Tochal. On the trek home, I had been joined by my aunt and her friends, a small group of women in their fifties. Sweating all day in my baggy khaki pants and loose white shirt with thin khaki stripes, I looked miserable.
As we approached Darband Square at Tehran’s northern edge, where my aunt had left her car, a female agent stopped me. “Khanoumi!” little lady. “Could you please come with me for a second?” To this day, I feel like breaking out in a rash whenever I hear khanoumi or khanoumam, so closely associated are they with the special vocabulary of Iran’s morality myrmidons.
The officer lead me over to a van by which a pair of fellow female agents were standing. I looked at all three of them. They each wore full makeup. One had manicured polished nails. Another was strikingly beautiful, like an innocent angel.
“Where’s your manteau?” one asked.
“What do you mean? This is all I have,” I replied.
“This is not a manteau, Khanoumi. This is a shirt.”
“But what’s the difference? Can you see any part of my body? You can’t even see my body shape in these loose clothes.”
“I know, but this is not a manteau.”
We argued politely for a while as she showered me with her khanoumis and khanoumams. In the end my aunt ran to her car and brought me a cloak. I put it on and was allowed to rejoin my companions. We were all calm. No one was scared or even angry. We were simply fed up.
How the hijab has made sexual harassment worse in Iran
Tehran Bureau correspondent
This is just a sample of some particularly memorable encounters. I won’t tire you with the many times my friends and I were called “prostitutes” by vigilant citizen-agents for laughing loudly on the street, the countless occasions on which we were asked to roll down our sleeves to obscure our forearms, cover our hair, and sit “appropriately” in public.
My personal repertoire of such stories stopped growing once I left Iran in late 2008, but friends who stayed are still adding to their collections. One recently told me how she was arrested right next to her home, driven to the police station and had her mugshot taken. She was laughing non-stop, saying it was just “so funny” to have an “improper dressing” charge on one’s permanent record.
Meanwhile, many with less self-confident senses of humor conscientiously attempt to avoid the morality patrols, skirting certain locations around the capital where they are known to concentrate. There is even an app, Gershad, that purports to pin down the latest danger spots.
The adventures of Iranian citizens with the morality police remind me of Shahrazad and her unending stories. They just go on and on. And it seems like no one who might want to do anything about it has the power to. Last week, President Rouhani gently criticized the deployment of undercover morality agents, saying that the first duty of those who enforce the law is “to respect people’s dignity and humanity.”
Yes. Very well. And? Until that blessed day of respect for Iranians’ dignity and humanity dawns, I’ll still be attempting to decipher what that militia man in the mountain village so many years ago was trying to make us understand.